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Drivable plane meets safety rules for both air, ground, company says

Let’s be honest: it’s 2014, and the automotive industry has utterly disappointed a generation of science-fiction lovers and futurists. Where are our flying cars?

Stepping into the void is Terrafugia, which bills itself as a “the flying car company.” It has announced an upcoming model called the “Transition,” which sports foldable wings that let the vehicle go from car to plane in about 20 seconds with the flip of a switch. Talk about a convertible.

The upcoming Terrafugia Transition is not quite a flying Jetsons-esque car. The Terrafugia Transition is, more accurately, a plane you can drive rather than a car you can fly. That means you’re not going to be able to hover away from a bad traffic jam.

But while it’s unlikely that you’ll see the plane/car combo replace the minivan, the company is trying to set an early standard for how regulators can deal with vehicles that operate both on the ground and in the air.

“It’s a first practical step,” said Terrafugia chief executive Carl Dietrich. “It’s what we can do today with today’s existing infrastructure.”

From a regulation standpoint, Terrafugia has built in safety measures mandated by both the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. So, for example, the Transition has both a parachute and airbags. To take care of the fact that it doesn’t have a traditional rear windshield, the Transition has a camera in the back, allowing drivers to see what’s behind them through a screen on the dash. No one wants to get into a lane-changing accident with a plane, after all. It also has all the things you’d expect in a car, such as standard seatbelts and side-view mirrors that can see around the massive wings when in car mode and can be removed altogether for flight.

Despite being street legal (with the wings up), the Transition is not exactly what you’d call a general purpose vehicle.

To use both the flying and driving functions — and, if you’re going to drop an anticipated $279,000 on a vehicle, why wouldn’t you? — you must have at least a sports pilot license.

You’re also going to need a runway: The Transition still needs a lot of room and a wide berth to take off, which it can do once it gets to a speed of about 70 mph. And that runway can’t be just anywhere, because you can’t just roll up to Reagan National Airport or Chicago’s O’Hare and expect to take off. You’ll need to head instead to one of the nation’s approximately 5,000 general aviation airports.

One thing you won’t need, however, is a hangar. Wings folded, the Transition is roughly the size of a Cadillac Escalade or a Ford F-350, Terrafugia executives said. So it should fit in a standard single-car garage.

It also runs on normal premium unleaded gasoline and gets roughly 35 miles to the gallon on the ground. In the air, it gets slightly less — about 20 miles to the gallon if you’re flying 100 mph.

The vehicle has a steering wheel for ground navigation, which pilot-drivers can then switch out for a steering stick in the air. It has four pedals on the ground — gas and brake pedals for driving and two rudder pedals for flying.

For the future, Terrafugia is planning a flying car that won’t need a runway — but you’ll have to wait a while. The development process alone for that model, called the TF-X, is expected to take eight to 12 years.